Tampa News Force Creators on Writing Local Satire in the Era of ‘Fake News’

June 26, 2020

By: Tiffany Razzano

TAMPA Fla. – About five years ago, Tampa-based stand-up comics John Jacobs and Josh Santos began making short, funny videos together.

“Just interviewing people at events like (Tampa Bay) Comic Con,” Jacobs said. “You know, just talking to people about anything.”

They discussed formalizing their work under the name Tampa News Force, even creating a logo for the planned satirical news outlet, but they didn’t officially launch the project until one night about two-and-a-half years ago when they were driving home from an open mic. While driving through their neighborhood, they passed a house fire with numerous police cars and other emergency vehicles parked out front and decided to stop.

They realized this could be their moment. Jacobs donned a suit, the pair grabbed a camera, and they started recording on the scene.

“We were like, why don’t we just put on a suit and we’ll film it and this will be the Tampa News Force and it will be like, you know, ‘The Daily Show,’ except Tampa and super local,” he said. “We ran into a cop we knew, and it was really funny and fun…It was the right time to launch the brand, at that moment.”

Around that same time, a serial killer was terrorizing the Seminole Heights area, where the two comedians lived. They took to the street to report on the killer and to see how their neighbors were feeling.

“It pushed us to keep going outside into the streets of Tampa every night, and just going up to people, because that’s what people like to see is danger,” Santos said.

They were drawn to “the pulse of the people,” Jacobs said. “We’re out on the streets asking people if (they) feel safe when there’s a killer.”

A few local journalists from the Tampa Bay Times were dismayed by their interviews, he said, tweeting at the pair that they should stop being “disrespectful.”

Though they’re comedians, they weren’t making light of the serious situation, Jacobs said. “If I’m informing anybody that there’s a killer out there, this is still valuable. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to ask, ‘How are you feeling right now?’ Some people can’t handle anything being handled in anything less than the utmost formal way possible. We’re just casual. We talk to people like people.”

Since then, Tampa News Force has grown into a multimedia organization. With close to 1,000 articles written so far, the satire news outlet has thousands of weekly viewers.

It offers much more than news articles, though. There’s also a 24-hour Twitch stream with more than 30 hours of original content, three films that have found their way into festivals, hundreds of comedy sketches, podcasts, a YouTube channel and there’s even a comic book in the works.

Clark Brooks, senior supreme executive premium content editor, likens their model to that of National Lampoon, which published a magazine from the 1970s into the late 1990s, produced live events and made movies.

“We’re kind of doing all of that on a smaller, local scale,” he said.

Topics covered run the gamut from Florida’s political figures – Sen. Rick Scott turns up often in stories – to “’Tampa Man does something…’” Jacobs said.

One potential headline from his notes reads: “Student accidentally band saws own head off.”

He said, “Sometimes it has nothing to do with anything, but that just sounds funny out loud to say. So that’s all I need to hear to write two pages on something.”

Writing satire in such a politically charged environment and during the era of “fake news” can sometimes be challenging, Jacobs added.

“I think (satire) used to be more well received in the world, but since the invention of the term ‘fake news’ it seems like literal ‘fake news,’ such as satire, is now put under this dirty category…where people dismiss the comedy. Immediately, they think we have bad intentions,” he said.

People often believe Tampa News Force stories are real news, which is surprising, he said. “If you’re 3-years-old you should be able to tell that what we’re writing is a joke. We make it very obvious. We’re not trying to mislead people.”

They recently caused a mild uproar among Brooksville residents when they posted a satirical story around the time the Aunt Jemima brand first announced it would change its name. Tampa News Force published an article about a new memorial in the Hernando County city: a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup on the base of a Civil War monument.

“People were very unhappy about that,” Brooks said, “but the town is named after a guy who beat the living daylights out of a fellow senatorial colleague for speaking out about slavery, so I don’t know how much room they have to complain.”

Santos added, “We love getting shared under the context of people thinking it’s real. That’s very funny to us. Two hundred thousand readers come to our site and 85% of those are completely confused about what’s going on.”

Brooks is surprised that the joke is sometimes lost on contemporary readers and nods to the early days of “Saturday Night Live.”

“They were merciless in making Gerald Ford look like a fool,” he said. Despite this, the president invited SNL producer Lorne Michaels and cast members John Belushi and Chevy Chase to the White House. “He understood that it’s jokes and it’s part of being in a position of power. You’re going to have shots taken at you. Being able to compartmentalize what it is versus what the intent is, that’s the part that’s gotten lost, I think.”

At the end of the day, Tampa News Force was born from their affection for Tampa and its neighboring communities.

“I think it’s safe to say we love the Tampa Bay area,” Brooks said. “We wouldn’t make fun of it if we didn’t. If we just hated it, we would just sit around and (complain) about it, but we go to the trouble of making these articles and making fun of stuff because we love it.”

Jacobs added, “We’re trying to make light of some stuff that’s not amazing, but I love Tampa. It’s the best.”

They encourage readers, even if they’re wary of satire, to check out their body of creative work.

“It’s such a giant mountain of content. There’s really something in there for everybody,” Jacobs said. “You’ll never reach the end of it.”

Brooks said, “Go check it out. Spend some time. Look around open mindedly. Have some fun. We’re not trying to hurt anybody. Just go in there and entertain yourself.”

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